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Raggio says threat forces him to abstain from tax package vote

Throwing a wrench into lawmakers’ tight schedule to pass a budget this week, Senate Minority Leader Bill Raggio, R-Reno, announced this afternoon that he will not vote on the tax package legislators have been working to hammer out.

In a lengthy oration from the Senate floor, Raggio said he was threatened with an ethics complaint by activists seeking to thwart the tax package, which includes $781 million in increases of existing taxes over the next two years.

Raggio sought an opinion from legislative legal counsel over whether his position as partner in a large statewide law firm that also employs lobbyists at the Legislature posed a conflict with regard to the tax vote.

Because one of the firm’s lobbyists had been solicited to testify in a committee hearing on the proposal to increase business payroll taxes, Raggio was told he would be required by Senate rules to abstain.

“I will follow the opinion. I will abstain,” Raggio said. “I will do so reluctantly, because my first obligation here, under the oath I took, was to do what’s right for this state.”

Raggio expressed irritation with the threat, which he said came from lobbyist and political operative Robert Uithoven. He heads a conservative political action committee that has been airing radio ads opposing tax increases, the Western Alliance Fund.

Uithoven denied making such a threat. He said his intention was merely to bring the legal opinion on the potential conflict to light and did not plan to file an ethics claim.

“To be threatened, if you vote this way, we’re going to turn you in to the ethics commission, I think goes a little too far,” Raggio said.

Potential conflicts of interest were becoming an issue for more than just Raggio on Wednesday.

Sen. Warren Hardy, R-Las Vegas, who had been negotiating for the Republicans on reforms to public employee benefits, pulled out of the talks Wednesday morning, saying he heard he could be subject to a complaint because of his relationship with the Las Vegas Chamber of Commerce, which has lobbied on the benefits and tax bills.

Hardy was replaced in the negotiations by Sen. Randolph Townsend, R-Reno.

Hardy said he was waiting for a legal opinion to see whether he could vote on the bill.

The tax package will need 14 of 21 Senate votes to pass. Democrats hold a 12-9 majority in the Legislature’s upper house.

Senate Majority Leader Steven Horsford, D-Las Vegas, said there would be another hearing this evening on the tax bill, first introduced late Tuesday night.

Horsford said he was looking at the Senate rules to see if anything could be done to allow all legislators to vote on their most important duty, the budget.

“If there is something that allows every member to participate as we were elected to do in order to meet the needs of this state, we will do that,” he said.

The Senate was scheduled to reconvene at 6:30 p.m.

Contact reporter Molly Ball at mball@reviewjournal.com or 702-387-2919.

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